We’ve had a little bit of time to digest the 2016 NFL schedule and to begin planning for some much-needed couch time with the game we love this Fall and Winter. A couple of early thoughts on what the schedule makers have brought to the table for our viewing enjoyment:
- Nice Increase in the amount of Sunday 4pm games on the docket for the upcoming season. There have been far too many Sundays with limited options in recent seasons, it’s good to see the action will be spread out a bit more this year.
- At first glance, the primetime schedule looks pretty solid. The schedule makers have many masters to serve in the form of the league’s various broadcast partners, and it looks like they did a pretty good job of spreading the wealth.
- The month of December looks like it will be a war of attrition. In addition to Week 17 being reserved for divisional matchups as per the norm, we have a wealth of rivalry games spread throughout the final stretch of the regular season.
For fantasy football purposes, our first look at the schedule also spurs us to begin searching for the matchups we can exploit. A lot can happen between now and the start of the regular season, but as fantasy football diehards, it’s next to impossible to have a slate of games put in front of us without having our minds turn to which games might be great sources of fantasy points. Here’s a way too early look at a some of the matchups we have circled for the early part of the season.
Oakland @ New Orleans
Week 1 looks to be chock full of juicy matchups for fantasy purposes, but my vote for the top game to target goes to a game featuring two porous defensive backfields on a fast track down in New Orleans. The up-and-coming tandem of Derek Carr and Amari Cooper have to be licking their chops at the thought of kicking off the 2016 season under such circumstances, while Drew Brees has an assortment of weapons at his disposal, namely Brandin Cooks and new addition Coby Fleener. Fantasy owners would be wise to keep this matchup firmly on the radar as a potential source of fantasy goodness for Week 1.
Runner-up: Detroit @ Indianapolis
Andrew Luck and the Colts begin their quest to bounce back from a disappointing 2015 campaign at home against the Lions. Protection issues were one of the bigger issues for the Colts last season, and an issue the team took steps to address at this year’s draft. On the Lions side of the ball, the team will look to replace the production of the retired Calvin Johnson, a task that will partially fall into the hands of free agent acquisition Marvin Jones. Both clubs had their share of issues with keeping opponents off the scoreboard in 2015, and while some improvement is likely on both ends, it may take a few weeks for that to set in.
Honorable Mention: Pittsburgh @ Washington
One of the highlights of opening weekend is the Monday Night doubleheader. Both games look like potentially fruitful matchups, but the nod for potential fantasy gold goes to the first game of the evening. Pittsburgh appears headed towards another season in which they will be a top five offense, while Washington may have finally found a franchise quarterback in the form of Kirk Cousins. Look for fireworks to be on the menu in the nation’s capital in what should be an entertaining game.
Jacksonville @ San Diego
We’ll look to a game in the four o’clock hour on the West Coast as a potential fantasy goldmine for Week 2. The Jaguars have put together a nice little offense that will only improve with another year of seasoning. They’ve taken steps to shore up the defense as well, and may very well be one of the preseason’s “it” teams heading into the regular season. As for the Chargers, there’s no reason to believe the gun-slinging ways of Philip Rivers will be holstered anytime soon, and perhaps Melvin Gordon will find his legs in his sophomore campaign. Look for these two teams to engage in a back and forth type affair that lights up the scoreboard.
Runner-up: Philadelphia @ Chicago
Doug Pederson takes the reins in Philadelphia following the unsuccessful experiment that was the Chip Kelly experience. An Andy Reid disciple, Pederson will install his version of the West Coast offense, and whether it’s Sam Bradford, Carson Wentz or even Chase Daniel behind center, we can expect an efficient offense that may not offer up a ton of big plays, but will offset that with a short passing game that can rack up the yardage in a hurry. For the Bears, year two of the John Fox era will see an intriguing, young backfield led by Jeremy Langford tasked with implementing Fox’s preferred run-first philosophy. This is an intriguing matchup for the early part of the season, and one that could translate into a small fantasy bonanza.
Honorable Mention: New Orleans @ New York Giants
The Giants and Saints hooked up down in New Orleans last year in Week 8, and proceeded to set defensive football back several decades. Drew Brees threw for seven touchdowns, while Eli Manning could only muster a paltry six. Final score: Saints 52, Giants 49. While we can’t count on the same results this season when the matchup heads to Met-Life Stadium, we can certainly keep this game circled on the calendar as one to keep an eye on for fantasy purposes. While both defensive backfields seemingly have nowhere to go but up, it may take a bit for things to settle in on that front. Add in the addition of even more offensive weapons for both clubs – especially Sterling Shephard, another potential stud wide receiver for the Giants – and we could be looking at more pinball-like scoring.
Detroit @ Green Bay
The home opener for the Green Bay Packers looks like a great spot to cast our gaze for some fantasy production in Week 3. Aaron Rodgers and Mathew Stafford both threw for a pair of touchdowns in each of the meetings between the two clubs in 2015. While we can’t automatically pencil that in for Week 3’s matchup, it certainly presents a nice baseline for the potential fantasy output. The 2015 season was a disappointment for both squads, just for vastly different reasons, but these two divisional rivals should produce some sparks at Lambeau Field.
Runner-up: Atlanta @ New Orleans
Surprise! The New Orleans Saints make another appearance on the list of games to focus on. As mentioned earlier, the Saints defense has nowhere to go but up in 2015, but we also shouldn’t be expecting any miracles. They should remain a good target to pick on, at least in the early going of the 2016 regular season. The divisional rivals combined for 52 points in the Saints 31-21 victory in Week 6 at the Superdome, and closed out the season by combining for 37 points to close out the regular season, a 20-17 win for the Saints in the Georgia Dome. This game has a better than average chance of turning into a track meet, and could be among the higher-scoring matchups of Week 3.
Honorable Mention: San Diego @ Indianapolis
The Chargers travel to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis to take on the Colts in an intriguing Week 3 matchup. Andrew Luck will have had a few weeks to knock the rust off at this point, while Philip Rivers will have had some time to work out the kinks in the Chargers offense. Translation: keep this one on the radar as a potential shootout. The NFL schedule makers may be thinking the same thing. They nestled this game into the four o’clock on Sunday window, despite the game taking place in the one o’clock-friendly city of Indianapolis. The forecast in Indianapolis calls for points in Week 3, and broadcast network CBS may as well just pencil in 60 Minutes for a late start by the time these two clubs stop scoring.
Rest of the Way
By this point in the schedule, we at least have a general sense of which direction the teams are headed for the remainder of the season. While we don’t need to completely throw preseason thoughts and projections out the window at this point, we can begin relying more heavily on the current season’s data for each week’s games. That makes it pretty tough to figure out where the gold may be buried for subsequent weeks, but that also surely won’t stop us from trying. Here’s a game from each week of the remainder of the schedule that appears to have a strong chance of bearing fruit.
Week 4: Oakland @ Baltimore
We touched on the Raiders earlier, and we’ll be looking for the Carr to Cooper combo to kick it up a notch in 2016. For the Ravens, the 2015 season was quite disappointing from the outset, and turned into an outright disaster with the season-ending injuries suffered by Joe Flacco and Steve Smith Sr. The Ravens have an intriguing assortment of weapons to surround the returning veterans, pointing us to a good chance of a bounce back for both the offense and the team as a whole.
Week 5: New England @ Cleveland
Assuming the four-game suspension of Tom Brady sticks for good this time, this will be the first appearance of 2016 for the veteran signal caller. In short, it’s pretty safe to say that Brady will have a lot of pent up aggression that he will be seeking an outlet for. The Browns have the unfortunate assignment of being the first to face off with a returning Brady, and it will likely be a long day in Cleveland. Brady is squarely on the radar for Week 5, as are top targets Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman.
Week 6: Dallas @ Green Bay
We’ll look to Lambeau Field once again in Week 6 for a fun matchup between the Cowboys and Packers. Tony Romo’s injury-riddled 2015 campaign will be firmly in the rearview mirror at this point, while rookie running back Ezekiel Elliot will have hopefully offered up validation for the Cowboys spending the number four overall puck to secure his services. Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson’s impressive chemistry seems even better on their home turf, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see them combine for a nice day in this late Sunday afternoon tilt.
Week 7: New York Giants @ Los Angeles
Eli Manning and the Giants travel to Los Angeles to take on the Rams. Look for Odell Beckham Jr. to put on a show for his first pro game in Los Angeles, while new partner in crime Sterling Shepard should be rounding into form, much to the chagrin of defensive coordinators everywhere. For the Rams, first overall pick Jared Goff gets a crack at a Giants secondary that struggled mightily in 2015. The Giants have taken steps to address some of their defensive inefficiencies, but we’ll have to wait and see if any improvement has set in by this point. The Giants had some difficulties stopping the run last year as well, a point that will surely not escape the notice of talented Rams running back Todd Gurley.
Week 8: Green Bay @ Atlanta
Green Bay makes another appearance on the watch list, this time for a trip down to Atlanta to take on the Falcons. A fast surface is always an intriguing spot to target a potentially high-powered offense such as the Packers. On the Falcons side of the ledger, this will be year two of the Kyle Shanahan offense, so we’ll see if that leads to a jump in productivity for Matt Ryan and company. We’ll consider that a good possibility at this early juncture, and also have our eyes on the impressive Devonta Freeman, who jumped into the top-tier running back conversation in a big way in 2015.
Week 9: Indianapolis @ Green Bay
It’s pretty hard not to get excited for a matchup between two of the league’s top quarterbacks. The competitive juices really begin to flow on both sides of the ball when we’re treated to one of these matchups, and this one should be no different. Look for Andrew Luck and friends to engage in a little game of one-upmanship with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. This game just might come down to who has the ball last. Look for fantasy points a-plenty in what could be an entertaining shootout between two of the league’s top signal callers.
Week 10: Dallas @ Pittsburgh
Tony Romo and the Cowboys will take their talents to Pittsburgh to face off with the Steelers, a team that has all the weapons in place to put forth another fine offensive season. The Steelers have an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions, and the offense should be firing on all cylinders by the time we get to Week 10. The Cowboys have the weapons to keep pace, and Ezekiel Elliot may have himself a busy day as the Cowboys look to control the clock and keep the Steelers offense on the sidelines.
Week 11: Green Bay @ Washington
The Packers show up on our quest for fantasy gold yet again, this time for a trip to the nation’s capital to take on Washington. Kirk Cousins took a gigantic leap forward in 2015, and has yet another weapon at his disposal for 2016 in the form of talented wideout Josh Doctson. Adding a player of Doctson’s potential to an already talented group of skill position players will lead to plenty of consternation for opposing defenses. For the Packers, if Jordy Nelson can return to pre-injury form, and the rest of the receiving corps takes a leap forward, the Packers could be one of the more potent offenses of 2016.
Week 12: Washington @ Dallas
Week 12 will mark back-to-back weeks in which we’ll have our eyes on Washington. It’s hard not to look at the Thanksgiving Day schedule and see this game on the docket without being intrigued. As we’re trying not to slip of into a food-induced coma, we’ll see if these two teams can provide some fireworks to keep our attention. The divisional rivals have quite a history on Thanksgiving, with the last matchup in 2012 resulting in an entertaining 38-31 victory for Washington. Not sure if we’ll see that many points this time around, but this game definitely has a spot on the fantasy radar.
Week 13: New York Giants @ Pittsburgh
The Steelers and Giants will find themselves on the fantasy radar many times this season, so a matchup between the two should be kept in mind as a potential fantasy bonanza. We touched on the Giants struggles on defense earlier, and while we should see some improvement in 2016, it likely won’t be enough to slowdown the potent Steelers. The Steelers were on the opposing end of some big fantasy outings from opposing quarterbacks in 2015 as well, and we could have another shootout on our hands in Week 13.
Week 14: Arizona @ Miami
The Cardinals make just their first appearance on this list, but they will definitely be an offense to keep an eye in 2016. The aggressive offensive approach of head coach Bruce Arians can be a boon for fantasy purposes, and this game could be a great source of production in Week 14. The Dolphins had plenty of issues with opposing running backs in 2015. Even allowing for some improvement this season, that bodes well for the output of the electric David Johnson. Down in Miami, high hopes abound for the offense under the tutelage of new head coach Adam Gase. The quarterback whisperer may just be the guy who brings Ryan Tannehill to the next level, which points to great upside for Tannehill and the talented receiving corps.
Week 15: New England @ Denver
It’s possible that this game will play a pivotal role in determining home field advantage for the AFC Playoffs. Although this game will not treat us to another edition of Brady vs. Manning, the rivalry between these two clubs remains in full effect. There’s a pretty good chance that Tom Brady will have a granite-sized chip on his shoulder throughout 2016, and also a pretty good chance that Bill Belichik will devise just the right game plans to maximize his productivity. For the Broncos, we’ll have to see who’s lining up behind center at this point. Regardless of whether it’s Mark Sanchez or rookie Paxton Lynch, the Broncos have plenty of talent on offense and should be a nice source of fantasy output in 2016.
Week 16: Indianapolis @ Oakland
This game could also have some bearing on the AFC Playoff picture, as the Raiders appear to be on an upward trajectory, and the Colts are in position for a bounce back campaign this season. Playoff picture and records at this point aside, we have two talented quarterbacks facing off in the form of Andrew Luck and David Carr. Both signal callers are surrounded with plenty of weapons at the skill positions, and this game could prove to be one of the more entertaining sources of fantasy points on the Week 16 docket.
Week 17: New Orleans @ Atlanta
Week 17 is always the toughest to project for fantasy purposes. When Week 17 is more than seven months away, that task becomes near impossible. We know that several teams will have their playoff spots locked up and have an eye towards remaining as healthy as possible for the postseason. Other teams will have turned their focus to offseason activities, and then there’s the group in the middle that still has something to play for. If the Saints and Falcons fall into the latter group, the divisional rivals could easily see the festivities devolve into a shootout. This game should have one of the higher projected totals of Week 17, and deserves a spot on the watch list - even at this early juncture.
That brings our way too early quest for fantasy gold to a close. A lot can and will happen between now and the start of the regular season, but it’s never too early to start digging for some potential goldmines.